Monday, November 24, 2014

Shazam! Hallelujah!

My wife recently introduced a friend to the most important mobile-platform application ever devised. With this app you can instantly identify any recorded music overheard in any environment. No more "What is this song?!? I know I know this!" No more "Note to self: Remember to purchase this song hours after having heard it." No more delayed gratification or missed opportunity. Now there is only ... Shazam!

Shazam! Hallelujah!

Our friend was awestruck by the Shazam app. And rightly so. It is truly awesome. The world of sound, right there at your fingertips. You may be thankful for your friends or your family; me, I'm thankful for my app.*

There are some limitations though - or, to be fair, some limitations on the devices where this precious app is stored. Shazam! works by listening to broadcast music and comparing what it hears to a digital music database; if it can't hear the music, it can't make the match. So if your device is too far from the music source, or the volume on the music source is set too low, or if there are other ambient noises overwhelming the song, Shazam! can't identify it. When that happens your best bet is to lift your device up to the music.

This limitation can lead to some awkwardness. For example, imagine that you're in your favorite local coffee shop, and you hear an unfamiliar song piping through the PA. You don't know the song, but you like it, so you Shazam! it. Unfortunately, you're sitting right next to one of those ubiquitous men's Bible study groups crowding every coffee house. They're all "Bro" this and "I just wanna" that, with their big macho Bible study voices, and Shazam! can't hear the music. So you raise your hands in the air, as you might in an act of worship, and you try again.

Shazam! "The HIV Song." You just worshiped Ween.

Not really, of course, but it does strike me as funny how the songs we invest ourselves in carry messages that, in another context, we would never admit to believing. If songs of the people (which is, essentially, what pop songs are) mirror the moment in which they're written, then they do in fact reflect what we're preoccupied with. And frankly it's not a big leap from preoccupation to idolatry. In these ways, the pop songs we find ourselves humming to, find ourselves laying down money for, tell the truth about us in uncomfortable ways. Who can deny what we learn about ourselves when we learn what song has burrowed its way into our brain? Shazam! "I wanna be a billionaire so freakin' bad ..."

TWEET THIS: It's not a big leap from preoccupation to idolatry.

Our money, our power, our prestige, our friends, our family, our Bible studies, our Bibles, our coffee, our apps, ourselves - all of these have the capacity to lead us into idolatry. We bend our knees before all of them without stopping to consider the cost; we close our eyes to their shortcomings, their incapacity to do what we expect idols to do - to save us from ruin and misery and worse. All of these are songworthy; none of these is worship-worthy. Sometimes it takes Shazam! to catch us in the act.

I'm not freaking out about idolatry, for what it's worth. If everybody does it all the time, it's hardly worth freaking out about. But still, being reminded that we're doing it is a gift: it's an opportunity to redirect our focus, to let our idols off the hook and let them be simply human - or simply things, as the case may be. Idolatry is silly; the Bible demonstrates just how silly it is:

The carpenter ... makes an idol
and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
over it he prepares his meal,
he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
“Save me! You are my god!” ...
No one stops to think,
no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
I even baked bread over its coals,
I roasted meat and I ate. ...
Shall I bow down to a block of wood?” (Isaiah 44)
If it's silly, we can laugh at it. And if we can laugh at it, it loses its power.

TWEET THIS: If it's silly, we can laugh at it. And if we can laugh at it, it loses its power.

So I'm not complaining; I'm just pointing out something funny. I'll leave you with my most recent accidental act of idolatry, a song I discovered via Shazam! when I lifted my iPhone up to the heavens. Hope you like it.

*For the record, I'm thankful for friends and family too. Relax.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Values Voting and the Wheel of Misfortune

On one occasion a values voter stood up to test Jesus.

"Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said: "A Jehovah's Witness was going door to door in a suburban neighborhood, when he was attacked by some folks who didn't appreciate being interrupted during the lightning round on Wheel of Fortune. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and tossed him from their entryway to the sidewalk, leaving him half dead.

"A volunteer for the ______________________ Party happened to be canvassing the neighborhood, warning residents about the evil deeds of the incumbent candidate, encouraging them to vote the bum out in the upcoming election. When he saw the man, he stepped over him and wisely decided to skip on to the next house.

"So too, a volunteer for the incumbent candidate, eager to alert residents to the out-of-touch and dangerous policy positions of her candidate's opponent, came to the place and saw the Jehovah's Witness. She too stepped over him and hurried on to the next house.

"But then a young man from the other side of town, carrying a milk crate full of candy he was being forced to sell door to door "so I can go to youth camp this summer," came where the man was. He took pity on him, dropped his crate of candy (to the consternation of his handler, watching him carefully from a car down the street), picked the man up, and carried him to a nearby church, waiting there with him while the church receptionist speed-dialed the head of the deacons to decide how to handle this situation (which perhaps understandably wasn't covered in the church employee handbook). Eventually it was decided that the church receptionist should call 911, and soon thereafter an ambulance and a police car came.

"The Jehovah's Witness was rushed to a local emergency room, where nurses bandaged his wounds. The police took the young man into custody. For his one phone call from the police department, the young man called the emergency room and told the triage nurse, 'Look after that Jehovah's Witness, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have - no matter how many candy bar sales it takes.'

"Which of these people do you think was a neighbor to the man who was beaten for interrupting Wheel of Fortune?"

The values voter replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:25-37, paraphrased)

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Simple Act of Singing Together

The other day I had occasion to dig around in the trunk of my car, and among other treasures I found was what has become my soundtrack for the week: Farewell to the World, the double-CD of Crowded House's final concert (in its original lineup) from the Sydney Opera House. Lead singer Neil Finn is one of the world's great living pop song writers, and that is surely on display, but the thing that's captivated me on this listen, the thing that keeps me listening - the thing that makes me glad for an excuse to get in the car, quite honestly - is the band's showmanship.

"She came all the way from America.
She had a blind date with destiny."
A crowd that had waited on their feet the whole day hears that line from "Mean to Me" off the band's first album and erupts in no-longer-contained excitement. The band knew it would happen, and they milk it and reward it throughout, with interactive interruptions to the set, like a call-and-response recitation of a beer slogan, a segue from the nightmare-inspired "Sister Madly" into "Climb Every Mountain" from the musical Sound of Music, and a Tina Turner impression that I can only guess is of her dancing, not her singing, since it's announced from the stage but YOU DON'T HEAR ANYTHING.

An unbelievable energy fills the record from beginning to the final chorus of "Don't Dream It's Over," with the crowd singing along and occasionally taking over singing and not bothering to forgive the band when the drummer drops his sticks or the guitarist plays the wrong chord or the singers butcher the lyrics of "Italian Plastic" because there's nothing to forgive: the goal of the evening has been achieved, the world and the band have had and bidden their fare-thee-wells.

"Hey now, hey now - don't dream it's over!
Hey now, hey now - when the world comes in
They come, they come to build a wall between us.
We know that they won't win ..."
You can't end a Crowded House concert with anything other than "Don't Dream It's Over," their first and most enduring hit. But the song that I keep going back to, the one I play on repeat, isn't a Crowded House song; it's not even an entire song, actually. It's the chorus of a song by the Australian group Hunters & Collectors, a song that has become a treasured classic there even though it's hardly known here in the States. The band quickly cedes the singing of it to the audience.

"We may never meet again.
So shed your skin and let's get started.
And you will throw your arms around me."
The original version of the song is intensely overproduced in all the ways you might imagine a mid-1980s pop song might be overproduced - sonic equivalents of too much hairspray and eyeliner and apocalyptic angst. But here it's stripped down: an electric guitar strumming the chords and thousands of people shouting the wordless refrain in unison. Originally an ode to a sexual encounter with a lost love, in the Sydney Opera House it takes on a more transcendent quality: Our lives are so fleeting, so transitory, and yet the things we do even in the limited encounters we have with one another can go on and on and on. Let's not weep over it; let's allow ourselves to be awestruck by it. Let's give ourselves to this moment together.

This is the sort of dynamic that churches all over the world would give their left lung for, I think. There are a lot of naysayers who think that contemporary praise and worship are thinning the theology of the church, that the fault for the church's cultural decline lies square at the feet of songwriters and worship leaders who force congregations to repeat the same pious pillow talk over and over and over again. I can see their point; song lyrics should mean something, and too often in mass-marketed pop worship (likr mass-marketed pop anything) they start to mean nothing. But there's something that those who fetishize ancient hymns often overlook: We are bound together not just by what we sing together but by the simple act of singing together itself.

TWEET THIS: We are bound together not just by what we sing together but by the simple act of singing together itself.

"Our lives," Dorothy Bass writes in the introduction to her book Practicing Our Faith, "are tangled up with everyone else's in ways beyond our knowing." It's why we can sing a nonsense lyric such as "Oh yeah!" at the top of our lungs alongside 160,000 other people and walk away feeling like we've been to church. We already know what we know, what we believe, what we assume to be true. What amazes us is the hints we get here and there that there is more to it than what we know, that there is life and meaning and majesty beyond us.

It's why atheists are having church services now, and it's why even agnostics and cynics and Baptists will still receive the Eucharist in moments of pregnant silence. It's why message art of any kind is so hard to pull off: putting too fine a point on our songs and paintings and films and sermons and blog posts for that matter stops a moment of transcendence in its tracks and shouts "Did you see what I did there!?!"

My point? I guess it's this: You don't have to make a point to make a moment sacred; you just have to enter into it, receive it and take it with you. And it helps if you're not alone when you do it.

TWEET THIS: You don't have to make a point to make a moment sacred. You have to enter into it, receive it and take it with you.

Here's video of Neil Finn singing the entirety of "Throw Your Arms Around Me" with his friend and Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder. I hope you enjoy it, and if you can muster up the moxie, I hop you join in on the chorus.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Hidden Cost of Making All Things New

Toward the end of the apostle John's grand apocalyptic vision, our Lord Jesus Christ takes his seat on the celestial throne and declares with triumph:

"I am making everything new! ...
These words are trustworthy and true!"
Having now arrived on the far side of quitting one job and taking another, selling one house and buying another, leaving one state (Illinois) and taking up residence in another (Colorado), I must confess that, at least lately, these words don't sound like unqualified good news to me.

Don't get me wrong: I love my new job and my new house and my new state. It has mountains in it. I've seen them. People who live here apologize to you if the weather isn't absolutely perfect. It's a good thing that we're here now. And yet the way from there to here has taxed my energies and revealed my insecurities. And it's cost a lot of money.

Mountains of fees and unexpected costs associated with selling and buying a house. License and registration fees for our cars, my wife's counseling practice, even our cats. Little things we need for setting up and settling into our house, some of which we know we already have but can't find in our basement full of boxes. Money, money, money.

TWEET THIS: "I am making everything new!" ... These words don't sound like unqualified good news.

And that's just the money part. The logistics of attending to all these adjustments taxes our brains and drains our energy. We drove all over town for several weeks, dealing with this or that, never really knowing where we were going. I still couldn't tell you how to get to Target, and yet Target constantly beckons.

And that's just the logistics part. A new town means new church, new neighbors, new friends, and until you've worked that all out a new town means no church, no friends, and neighbors who wait for you to make the first move even though you don't have the least bit of energy left to make the first move. Not to mention that you're lost in this new place, craving a new familiarity, persevering as best you can until the bewilderment finally passes.

I'm making it sound awful, I know. Pity the poor blogger. In fact we've been helped immensely along the way by people who have, in fact, reached out to us. A longtime acquaintance became a treasured friend virtually overnight; a couple of coworkers have been reliable guides and gracious companions throughout our transition; we've had dinners with friends and families we rarely saw back in Illinois, and we've got a surprisingly full social calendar. Stepping back and objectively assessing the scene, I can see the good in all the new.

But life isn't a matter of stepping back; it's a matter of stepping in and wading through, of accepting the reality you're presented with and living well in the midst of it. And reality is a story being written, which means there is always something new on the horizon, some resolution to the current drama, some plot twist that no one saw coming. Even we are changing, not simply our circumstances: I'm not the person I was in Illinois, because in the process of moving from there to here, of letting go of then and accepting the reality of now, I am being made new.

TWEET THIS: "Life isn't a matter of stepping back; it's a matter of stepping in and wading through."

So are you, for the record. Don't get cocky. The process of change, happening as it is on both a cosmic and a subatomic level, is a humbling thing, and whatever it produces in us, it probably will make us more humble if we let it.

And humility isn't just a virtue in this case; it's a resource. With humility we are better equipped to endure the embarrassment of asking for what we need. With humility we are more prepared to see the needs of people experiencing change and to offer ourselves to ease the burden. With humility we are better positioned to step back from the story we find ourselves in and to see the good news hidden in all this change, all this newness.

"I am making all things new!" Jesus says, and he wouldn't say it if he didn't mean it, and if he didn't mean it for good. I'm sort of counting on that, because in the midst of all this change, any good news is a gift.